This practice of arranging the marriage of a dead person was uncommon, usually held in order to placate a spirit. A deceased concubine who had produced a son might be officially married to elevate her status to a wife. Or two lovers who died tragically might be united after death. That much I knew. But to marry the living to the dead was a rare, and indeed dreadful occurrence. [loc. 65]
Malacca, 1893: Li Lan's mother died of smallpox years ago, and Li Lan has grown up in genteel poverty with her scholarly father. One day Li Lan's father receives an offer of marriage for her, from Lim Tian Ching, the heir of the Lim family. The former heir, to be accurate: he died -- rumour has it that he was poisoned -- quite recently.
Li Lan is torn: this would repair her father's fortunes and save her old nurse from poverty, but she is repulsed by the thought of being married to a ghost -- especially as she's developed a crush on his cousin, Tian Bai. In a turmoil, she consults a medium, whose advice (and mystical powder) send Li Lan on a journey she is wholly unprepared for. She falls in with a young woman named Fan, whose agenda is rather ... offputting: but Li Lan needs all the allies she can find. Fortunately, she encounters the mysterious Er Lang, who seems to travel between life and afterlife without difficulty, and who takes an interest in Li Lan because her predicament connects to a case of corruption he's investigating.
Before Li Lan's life rights itself again, she becomes a servant; meets her dead mother; learns about how spirits can drain life from the living; and helps to uncover bribery and blackmail at the highest level.
I had only a vague idea of Chinese / Malaysian notions of the afterlife, and was fascinated by the bureaucracy of the Chinese hells. Er Lang's nature was apparent to me well before Li Lan realised just who he was: Fan, on the other hand, was quite a surprise.
There are some delightful turns of phrase ('My heart felt as hard and dry as a salted apricot' [loc. 3658]) and some truly evocative descriptions. Li Lin seems overly naive at times, but she's younger than her years, at least at the beginning of the story, so this can be forgiven. Most of the other characters, it has to be said, are somewhat one-dimensional (though this might be simply how Li Lin sees them): but the setting, and the glimpse of a vanished world, are interesting enough to compensate.